sex education

Why a good consent curriculum is about much more than yes please. Here’s what we need to do now

If, like me, you weren’t glued to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee proceedings recently, you might have missed the announcement that Ministers of Education around the country are supporting the latest version of the national curriculum.  In any other year this may have been unremarkable – but this year, one particular inclusion was of significant public and political interest.  Consent.

The new curriculum includes improved content about ‘consent’ in Health and Physical Education from foundation grades to year 10, and support for this inclusion was specifically mentioned in the Senate Committee.  The issue of ‘consent education’ has become increasingly politically relevant over the past year or so in Australia.  While young people and advocates have been clamouring for better comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) for decades, sounding the alarm that it is a key protective factor in safeguarding sexual wellbeing and preventing sexual violence, over the last year the wider community has become newly alive to the issue.

In early 2021, Chanel Contos (pictured in header) conducted a poll on her Instagram which asked whether her friends had experienced sexual violence.  The volume of replies in the affirmative was overwhelming, and it transformed into a petition for better ‘consent education’ – in recognition of the connection between the deficiency in their education and their experiences of sexual violence.  The media interest in the story meant the Australian public began discussing this issue at a national level, and the political pressure this generated did not dissipate.

Inclusion of consent in the curriculum was one of the express goals of Chanel Contos and her Teach Us Consent initiative, and for good reason.  Recognition that the stuff of RSE is a non-negotiable part of every Australian’s schooling life is a huge milestone, and the curriculum gives educators around the country an imprimatur to teach their students more about consent from an early age.  So can we, as a community, rest easy now?

Now more than ever, we must not lose momentum.  It will be a fatal blow to ensuring every young person is fully equipped with the information and education they need to safeguard their sexual wellbeing, if we were to sit back now and say: ‘job done’.  Quite the contrary: the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has done its job – now it’s time for all of us to do ours. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say what I have said many times before: a good curriculum is like a life-saving vaccine.  It could be a brilliant product, but without the means to store it, transport it and get it into people’s arms, it will spoil on the shelf.  This is where we have always stalled on sex-ed in Australia: implementation.  Australia has produced some of the best RSE researchers and providers in the world, and yet it has never crossed over into classrooms, into changed attitudes, into changed statistics about the rates of unwanted sex for young Australians.

This is what prompted me to go overseas on a Churchill Fellowship in 2019 in search of answers to the question of sex-ed implementation: traipsing across Europe and North America, I wanted to understand the secrets to success in sex-ed.  I learned that comprehensive RSE is a complex issue of implementation, expertise and oversight, and I identified six success factors: advocacy, institutional/government support, expertise, equipped educators, engaged parents, and evaluation.  Putting consent in the curriculum is only one small piece of the puzzle. 

First of all, framing this education through the lens of consent is dangerous: we must be teaching young people to expect sexual experiences that are not just free from violence, but far from violent.  It needs to be much more holistic, which is why advocates in the sector tend to use the language of relationships and sexuality education rather than zeroing in on the issue of consent.

Secondly, a new curriculum does not magically endow teachers with the expertise and confidence they need to deliver RSE effectively.  This really matters, because the nature of RSE is such that getting it wrong can be ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst.  Subliminal messages that come through a teacher’s phrasing, their demeanour, their answers to the curly questions these lessons inevitably prompt, can actually serve to reinforce some of the attitudes that drive sexual violence and harassment.  For example, as someone in Canada said to me, even well-meaning teachers will find themselves resorting to abstinence only messaging because of the taboo around talking about sex.  I have spoken to many educators who worry they are not confident or expert enough to deliver what is a very nuanced subject, and they are right to identify this need for professional development.  We need to invest in ensuring teachers are equipped to deliver RSE effectively, and are truly supported by school leadership to do so.

So too, we know that these lessons can’t begin and end at the school gate.  This is a whole of community effort, and parents and caregivers are a key part of that.  In the Netherlands, it was described to me as a triangle: education of children, of teachers, of parents/caregivers.  Many parents want to understand what their young people will be learning in RSE and why, and more still wish for greater literacy and confidence in continuing the sex-ed conversation at home around the dinner table.  This new curriculum does not do that, either.

The new curriculum is something to celebrate.  It recognises that young people have a right to learn about this important issue from a young age – and it has not been easy to get here, for sex-ed has long been plagued by community and political apathy, ignorance and opposition (which will not have disappeared with this new announcement).  But if we want comprehensive RSE to reach its full potential, so that our young people can reach theirs, we cannot afford to stall again.

Katrina Marson practises as a criminal lawyer in the area of sexual offences.  She is the lead researcher for primary prevention at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, and the president of the Relationships and Sexuality Education Alliance ACT. She is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University, exploring whether there is a right to sex education through a human rights framework.

How sex ed can save the workplace and the world

A young student reveals he’s had “regular, valuable and powerful talks” about consent and respect but they haven’t had the “intended and crucial impact. One educator explains what should be done.

By Georgia Carr

I have sat in sex education classrooms and been amazed by what I’ve seen.

Teachers who taught consent in great detail – from legal definitions to enthusiastic consent to how to access help if something does go wrong. I have seen students take these principles and apply them to scenarios involving questions of age, alcohol consumption and online bullying. I have seen teachers who were inclusive and respectful of sexuality and gender diversity, and who made space for students with different cultural and religious beliefs. And they managed to do it while a researcher and her camera sat in the room, and while a global pandemic changed their teaching situation every other week.

But calls for more thorough and earlier consent education, following allegations of sexual assault and harassment in Parliament House and Australian private schools, show that not every student sits in this kind of classroom.

Getting to the root of sexual assault and sexual harassment means teaching comprehensive sex education and educating people of all genders on the importance of consent, and our schools are the best place to do it.

Why should we teach consent in schools?

Research tells us that schools are the best place for sex education, with the strongest evidence for things like increased use of condoms and contraception but also social outcomes like better knowledge and acceptance of diverse sexualities and, crucially, better attitudes around consent and gender-based violence. School sex education is also one of the most trusted sources of information on sexual health, even in the age of the internet. Even though almost 80% of young Australians use the internet to find answers, they still rate school programs as one of the most trusted sources of information, competing with ‘mum’ for first place in the five national surveys conducted to 2013.

What does consent education look like?

Consent education is generally assumed to mean (1) consent to sexual intercourse and (2) the legal definition of consent. While both of these should be part of consent education, they also only scratch the surface.

Firstly, consent is something that exists beyond sexual intercourse. It applies in all sexual encounters, from kissing to touching to sexting, and students can learn about how to seek and express consent even if they are not interested in sex yet. But consent also applies outside of sexual contact altogether. It applies when you ask a friend’s permission to borrow their car, or when you offer to make them a cup of tea. The concept of consent can be taught even to young children: “do you want to give grandma a hug or wave goodbye?” In 2018, sex educator Deanne Carson was mocked for suggesting people can model consent with babies when changing a nappy, but bodily autonomy and respect are exactly the kind of values we should be raising children with. If 8% of children experience sexual abuse before their 15th birthday and 28% of students experience unwanted sex by the end of high school, learning about consent in years 9 and 10 is too late.

Secondly, consent education often focuses on legality – at what age and under what circumstances sexual activity is legal or illegal. We are right to educate students on this, but knowing the legal definition of a term does not on its own change behaviours, any more than saying it is illegal to consume alcohol before the age of 18 stops underage drinking. Consent education must also include understanding the fundamental principles that underlie those laws – bodily autonomy, mutual respect, and enthusiasm and willingness rather than the absence of a “no”.

Consent education should include:

  • Giving & receiving enthusiastic affirmative consent, that consent is more than the absence of “no”
  • How to check in regularly, not assuming that yes in the past means yes now
  • Giving and recognising verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Understanding what compromises consent, for example drugs and alcohol or an imbalance of power

What does the curriculum say about consent?

The Australian Curriculum on health and physical education includes topics on respectful relationships, including negotiating consent, managing relationships online and offline, and dealing with relationships when there is an imbalance of power (see this recent article in The Conversation for more detail). But there can be a significant difference between what is written in the curriculum and what happens in the classroom.

Curricula will necessarily be quite general: they are designed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of different states and territories, local communities, and individual schools and teachers. This is of course an advantage; schools and teachers can tailor the curriculum to suit their needs. But this also means that a number of factors could interfere.

What happens in a classroom will ultimately be determined by the teacher in the room. Teachers consistently report a lack of time and resources, and are understandably left feeling underprepared. They may also feel embarrassed or fear backlash for discussing a topic that attracts controversy. Indeed, we need only look at the political firestorm around Safe Schools in 2016 to understand why teachers might be hesitant to wade into politicised waters.

Given the choice, and a chronic lack of time and resources, teachers understandably stick with what fits with their existing beliefs, interests and practices. Understanding the implementation of these curricula means looking at actual sex education lessons.

What actually happens in sex education classrooms?

This is exactly the question I am trying to answer in my PhD. I have been lucky enough to observe and record real sex education lessons in a NSW high school, and I have seen phenomenal sex educators at work.

But everyone is likely to be on their best behaviour when a camera is in the room, and I know that what I have seen is not every student’s or every teacher’s experience. Sex educators operate in an incredibly politicised climate and may risk becoming a target of abuse themselves. Students may not get the information they’re looking for, especially when it comes to consent, pleasure and LGBTQIA relationships.

There is huge variation in how sex education is delivered. But research like this can help us see what is really going on and can generate resources to help teachers feel truly prepared and empowered to tackle the big questions students throw at them. If we want to really see a change, more researchers need to join me in unpacking sex education. We still have so much to learn.

Georgia Carr is researching sex education for her PhD at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include discourse analysis, corpus linguistics and gender and sexuality.